Aging farm population will likely lead to structural changes in agriculture

An aging American farm population, the need to successfully transition land ownership from senior farmers to new industry entrants, and providing support and training for these beginning farmers, are top concerns for the future of the American farming industry, said an agricultural economist in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University.

“Farm transitions have been identified as one of the major upcoming structural changes in agriculture that concerns policy makers,” said Ani Katchova, chair of Ohio State’s Farm Income Enhancement Program. She also holds appointments with Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.

Katchova defines farm transitions as changes in farm size or structure, intergenerational transfers of a farm operation, and the entry and exit of industry participants.

Using data from the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture, Katchova worked with Mary Ahearn, an agricultural economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, to analyze the age distribution of all farmers and beginning farmers.

The team also examined how young and beginning farmers enter the industry and grow their operations over time, how many beginning farmers join the farming industry each year, and the exit rates for U.S. farms.

The average age of U.S. farmers in 2007 was 57.1 while in 2012 this figure reached 58.3, Katchova said. Additionally, the current data shows that there are fewer beginning farmers joining the industry compared to findings from earlier agricultural censuses, she said.

“Among U.S. farmers, 6% are 35 years old or younger, while 33% are greater than 65 years old,” Katchova said. “In Ohio, 7% are 35 years old or younger, while 29% are older than 65.

“Most people think of beginning farmers either as young or older, second-career farmers, however, statistics show that beginning farmers can be of any age with the highest number of beginning farmers being mid-age.”

As an industry, farming is currently showing lower entry numbers for new farm businesses started each year across the nation, she said.

“There were 652,820 beginning farmers in 2007, and only 522,058 in 2012, representing a 20% drop over the five-year period,” Katchova said. “Only 25% of farmers are classified as beginning farmers according to Census of Agriculture statistics.”

Katchova and Ahearn found that there are significant challenges facing beginning farmers, or those with less than 10 years of experience, and young farmers, or those less than 35 years old.

Both groups report a need for more support and training, as well as help in acquiring access to farmland, Katchova said.

“Depending on their age, we find that beginning farmers have different capital needs in terms of purchasing or leasing farmland and that they likely need different support programs to start their businesses,” she said.  “While young farmers may have similar needs to initially acquire farmland as older beginning farmers, young farmers may need additional capital or may face more credit constraints for purchasing additional farmland to expand their operations.

“These considerations make it important for policy makers to have a clearer sense of their policy goals in targeting beginning farmers, including targeting young farmers and tailoring farm policy support for their needs.”

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